The Idea of India – Learning the hard way

After the untimely death of Nehru in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri took over the reins as the prime minister of India. A Soft Spoken and mild mannered person, Shastri carried himself with a strong resolve. As the country teetered towards chaos at the death of Nehru, his leadership inspired a sense of calm. In his first broadcast to the country he implored the citizens to look forward and carry on the legacy of Nehru’s socialist reforms

There comes a time in the life of every nation when it stands at the cross-roads of history and must choose which way to go. But for us, there need be no difficulty or hesitation, no looking to right or left. Our way is straight and clear—the building up of a socialist democracy at home with freedom and prosperity for all, and the maintenance of world peace and friendship with all nations.

Shastri refused to align with any major power bloc and looked to promote India’s agrarian reforms. He enabled the White Revolution and raised the slogan “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” (Translated to Long Live the Soldier, Long Live the Farmer). Shastri’s assurances that English would continue to be used as the official language as long the non-Hindi speaking states wanted helped quell the protests by the Southern States as the Government looked to set Hindi as the Official language of India. The biggest moment of Shastri’s tenure materialized when he had to take decisive action and mobilize the Indian Army to ward off Pakistan Insurgency in Kashmir in 1965. His quick actions neutralized Pakistan’s hand. The Soviet Union helped broker peace between the warring neighbours. Shastri and Pakistan PM Ayub Khan are invited to Tashkent to sign the peace treaty. Shastri mysteriously died in Tashkent a day after signing the treaty. The circumstances of his death are shrouded in mystery and his close relatives suspect foul play. Though, not many details have been made public, several conspiracy theories have been around for a long time now. Shastri’s sudden death lead to Indira Gandhi assuming power as the Prime minister of India in 1967.

The Rise of Indira

Indira’s ascent to the top rung of Indian politics shattered several glass ceilings. She was the first and as of today the only Indian female prime minister. Indira’s presence in the Indian political spectrum was not new. She was nominated to the Rajya Sabha (Upper house) and was elected the president of the Indian national congress in 1959. It was generally believed that the congress party chose Indira over party hard liner Morarji Desai as they saw Indira as someone who would never do anything contrary to the party’s interests. The country was facing unprecedented levels of unemployment, religious communalism, and famine. She was forced to undervalue the Indian currency and borrow wheat from the Americans. The Congress party had lost its shine, and their leaders were seen as corrupt and as ones who no longer had interests of India in mind. Though the party managed to retain the majority in the central government their vote share had dropped considerably. Several regional parties won the state assembly elections and wrested control of the power at the state level. The Communist Party of India (CPI) made gains in Bengal and Kerala. The Dravidian Party (DMK) won Tamil Nadu and engaged in populist schemes and played to the local Tamil sentiment.

Indira’s rallying slogan was “Gharibi Hatao” (Translated to Eliminate Poverty) and unleashed a slew of socialist reforms looking to eliminate poverty across the country. The programs looked to gather support from the rural and the urban poor. The Bangladesh Liberation Effort and victory in the Indo Pak war deliver the next general and state elections to Indira. While Nehru’s policies were based on the four pillars of democracy, socialism, secularism and non alignment, Indira’s policy decisions seemed to be heavily influenced by her Socialist advisers. She nationalized banks, stopped the monetary payments that were being made to the erstwhile “royal families”. The agricultural reforms headed by Subramanian C start paying dividends as the yield of Mexican wheat grown in India doubled. For the first time in many years though the political landscape still seems shaky, the economical and social landscape seemed stable.

The Rule by Decree

Indira Gandhi looked to consolidate her power at the state and central levels, by choosing those loyal to her to lead various state governments. She nominated judges to the Supreme court who aligned with her visions, these actions all were seen by historians as being authoritarian. It is widely believed that the government led a mass sterilization program to limit population growth. In rural India many were unwittingly forced by government doctors who were assigned quotas to fulfill. The breaking point was when the Allahabad high court decided that Indira had misused Government funds on election rallies and declared Indira’s election to the lower house in 1971 invalid. Indira rejected the calls of resignation from the opposition party and vowed to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court. The 1972 war had taken a heavy toll on the supply chain and inflation was rearing again. George Fernandez (NDA Defense Minister) joins the fray and brings the western railways to a standstill further compounding the logistics issues. JP Narayan, the erstwhile congress leader and Nehru’s mentor led protests against the government in Bihar and Gujarat. As the protests against the government intensified, Indira decided to impose the Emergency Rule in India, jailed the opposition party leaders, and muzzled the independent press. Citizens were detained indefinitely and the state enforced curfews to keep the public in state. The president signed ordinances that allowed Indira to rule by Decree. These were truly the darkest days of Indian democracy. Two years later, in 1977 Indira called for fresh elections and released a few political prisoners. The Congress party was routed in the 1977 elections, and Indira and almost all of the congress leadership lost the election. For the first time since independence, the congress party would no longer be in power.

Return to Power and Assasination

The Janata government takes over the reins and Morarji Desai becomes the prime minister of India. The Jan Sangh Party provides support and its leaders assume various ministerial positions. If it took 30 years for the congress party to lose its way and succumb to the temptations of power, it hardly took 2 years for the Janata Party. Reports of government offices and bungalows being ransacked by those in power came to the fore front. The only positive thing to come have from the government is from the efforts of Law Minister Shanti Bhushan (who in later years joined Anna Hazare in the fight against corruption) who was instrumental in rewriting the laws that enabled Indira to wield authoritarian power. The laws were amended to seek majority parliamentary approval before their enactment. The government was unable to deliver on the pre election promises, and Indira drove the point home. She campaigned across the country, attempted to connect with the rural folk and established her credential as the only leader who could help India on her path to glory. The 1982 elections saw Indira ascend to power for the 3rd time.

In the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra film actors turned politicians like MGR, and NT Rama Rao connect with the people and storm their way to victory in the state elections. For the first time Indian Politics has paved way for non political players to reach the pinnacle of power. Their populist style regimes are still celebrated to this day. While the southern states, resorted to political battle to consolidate their power, the North Eastern State of Assam break into revolt against the influx of Bangladeshi Immigrants. In Punjab, fringe Sikh Extremists demand to establish the sovereign state of Khalistan as a homeland for the Sikhs. The protests in Assam to an extent and Punjab subsequently turn very violent.

As reports of Insurgency in Punjab rises, so does the tension between the Indian Government and the Punjab Akali Dal Party. It is widely believed that Pakistan Intelligence Wing ISI was responsible for providing the Khalistani supporters with weapons and instigating them to violence. The Punjabi Sikhs, who remained in India after partition felt that they were mistreated by the Hindu community and their identity was being diluted. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Akali Dal leader took refuge in Akal Takht and fortified the temple complex with his supporters. Similarly many khalistani supporters took refuge in the “Takhts” to evade arrest by the Indian authorities. Indira ordered the army to commence Operation Blue star to remove JSB and his armed militants from the complex, the operation resulted in the death of about 500 people. (78 Indian Commandos, and 400 odd militants). The Indian governments military action inside the Sikh temples were condemned by several Sikh religious bodies. Indira was assassinated by her own bodyguards in retaliation. Her death lead to massive public outcry and resulted in the Anti Sikh riots of 1984. The riots claimed many innocent Sikh lives (Official numbers indicate 3500).

Thus ends the legacy of one of India’s most charismatic personalities. Indira had shown the world India’s strength and resilience built on the pillars of democracy, secularism, socialisms and inadvertently by her own actions chose to threaten two of the four pillars. It remains to see if the country can survive the prolonged attack on these foundational pillars.

The Idea of India – Evolution

The next part of Guha’s book helps us understand the events post independence, gives us a glimpse on the pain that partition inflicted on the country. Guha also delves on the efforts taken by Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar to define a unified, secular and democratic country.

The Idea of India

The partition left the country divided on religious lines. Hindus from Pakistan were forced to relocate to India, and the Muslims from India prepared to relocate to Pakistan. The newly formed governments of both countries were ill equipped to handle the violence or handle the scale of migration. Punjab, Bengal, and Delhi were the states that were most affected by the violence. While the Hindus of Bengal took the West and the Muslims took the east (now Bangladesh), it was not straightforward in Punjab as the state had a strong Hindu, Muslim and Sikh population. The most violent clashes took place in Punjab. Gandhi believed that if he could help quell the unrest in Bengal, then he would be able to control the situation in Punjab. Nehru and Gandhi did more to quell the violence than the Pakistani governor. Nehru and Gandhi wanted the Sangh to not mirror Jinnah’s two nation theory and ideas that Hindus and Muslims could not coexist. The Sangh believed the Nehru and Gandhi had failed the Hindus and the country and believed that non Hindu people needed to adopt Hindu way or deserve no privileges.

In 1948 Mahatma Gandhi was shot fatally by Nathuram Godse a RSS fanatic, who blamed him for the partition. RSS was subsequently banned by the government of India. The ban on RSS was revoked by Patel later on when M.S. Gowalkar swore allegiance to the Indian flag. Nehru and Patel were both shaken by the loss of Gandhi. Gandhi’s ability to transcend violence and spread a message of harmony was the bedrock upon which the foundations of a secular country were built.

The government then focused on resettling the refugees. Activists and Administrators come up with innovative solutions to settle the displaced. Nehru’s progressive left style of politics made him a media favorite in the world. Nehru had travelled extensively and had an more outward look on life. Patel on the other hand believed that India would not benefit from the western outlook of life. Inspite of the differences Patel and Nehru worked on establishing a committee to draft the constitution of India. B.R Ambedkar was nominated as the chairman of the committee and public opinion is sought on several topics. The role of public in governance is a key reason i believe that democracy has sustained in the country for so long. Policies, laws were drawn up by the members after consulting the people of the country. Debates were conducted to test Ideas and Policies. Patel worked hard to drive compromises and ensured the constitution would not undermine critical points of governance. The constitution of India was drafted in 3 years and remains one of the finest achievements of the Indian government till date.

Nehru’s governance was focused on development and protecting minorities rights in the country. India was a predominantly an agrarian country. As the population boomed, so did the shortfall of grains. Nehru realized that in order to be self sufficient, the country had to invest and improve key areas like agriculture, communication and industrialization. Nehru wanted to take a leaf out of the Russian playbook and transform the country. Russia was seen as a poor agricultural country with peasants yet in a few years they transformed to an industrial country through their own means. The Congress party had set up a national planning commission in 1938 to define the economic policy of free India. The belief was that this was essential to provide for the people of the country. The commissions first plan focused on the idea that the State was essential to any large scale economic planning. The center was expected to do the groundwork and provide the required infrastructure to the states to help achieve the goals. the commission recommended 3 tiers and advocates that the most critical industries that help national security and growth like defense, air force, electricity remain with the state. The private sector could step in to various degrees for the remaining two tiers. The idea behind the thought was private sectors were driven by profit and this would not be necessarily good for the country.

Programs promoting agrarian uplift were put in place. Forests were cleared, use of Fertilizers was promoted to develop fields. The farmers did have concerns with the fertilizers as they believed that the crop though resistant to bugs, did not taste well and believed that the earth was being polluted. Several Gandhian followers were extremely concerned by the deforestation and large dams as they though that men were playing havoc with nature for their benefits.

India also set up National Institutes like ISI, NSS, CSO. The latter two were responsible for collecting reliable data on living standards. These organizations enabled India to have a top class set of statistics to support data driven policy enablement. Nehru wanted to develop a scientific temper across the country and believed industrialization was key for development. Hence the second planning commission had it’s goals set around industries, irrigation, transportation and social services. Homi Bhabha developed the atomic energy commission. IIT’s were built in several states to promote engineering as a field of study. The commission recognized that production of power and steel was critical to help meet development goals. India’s central forest belt had rich deposits of iron ore and several large rivers. India sought the help of Germany, Russia and England to help build steel plants. Large dams were constructed across major rivers to help with water storage, power generation and preventing floods. By 1960 India had refuted a belief that Indians were non productive and pre scientific and had established India as a strong player in the S&T field

The Evolution of the Political Parties

After the passing of Sardar Patel, Nehru became the defacto leader of the Congress Party and the government of India. His vision for a progressive, secular country ran into several challenges even amongst his Party members. The 1952 general elections would prove to be a test of strength of Nehru’s government. Nehru was initially skeptical of elections as he thought that illiteracy would make people vote for nationalist, insensitive politicians rather than leaders who would take the country forward, yet he campaigned whole heartedly and led the Congress party to an overwhelming victory against the Hindu MahaSabha, Communist Party and Socialist Party in the 1952 elections. The win was a major boost for Nehru who was jubilant that people had voted for progressive parties rather than choosing parties that promoted communalism or nationalism. Nehru kept the government in power for 2 more terms. The death of S.P Mookerjee had weakened the sangh, and the congress party had no major opposition at the central level.

The regional state parties forced Nehru to redraw the states along linguistic lines. This move strengthened the state parties and reduced the vote share of the congress party. In the 1957 elections DMK won the Tamil Nadu State assembly elections the leadership of Periyar and CPI won Kerala under the leadership of EMS. The case of CPI winning in Kerala was seen by many as a shock, however the EMS government turned out to pass Land and educational reforms. The Congress Party joined the religious state members like NSS, SNDP and Christian Missionaries to protest the reforms introduced by the CPI government. Nehru is surprised by the governance and despairs to take any action against the ruling group. However as pressure mounts from his party he invokes article 356 and removes the democratically elected government. Several communities felt the government had not done enough to protect their interests while the government focused on the industrialization of the country. The Adivasis, and the Naga tribes started demanding their own States. Nehru had to use the army to quell the Unrest in Nagaland. The reports of violence by the army on the Naga villagers are documented by only a few. Nehru was a moral leader and these missteps faded his aura a bit. The RSS and other opposition parties scrutinized every single move Nehru made and every case where he had to make a compromise was cited as his failure as the leader of the country. The border trouble with Pakistan and China eventually broke Nehru. His health deteriorated and his untimely death in 1964 caused a leadership vacuum in the congress party and gave a major boost to the opposition parties.

Whether you agree or disagree with their politics, the political parties of that time were primarily driven by a purpose and stood by their core ideals. The RSS and the Hindu Jan Sangh believed in their religious ideals and worked to build about a Hindu identity. The political leaders like EMS, JP Narayan, Kamaraj, Nehru, BR Ambedkar, Moraji Desai all had the interests of the common folk at heart and truly represented the ideas of the majority. I have not seen anything so far to suggest that the post independence India leaders did not have the best interests of the nation at heart and are the ones to be blamed for the current predicament we are in. It is a shame that the people’s trust on the political system has eroded considerably since then. In the next essay, I would like to cover ideas and incidents that lead to modern day politics in India.

The Idea of India – Origins

India celebrated its 74th independence day on the 15th of August 2020. We have come a long way since then. India is seen by the rest of the world, as a stable democracy, as a secular and a diverse country, and as a country with great human capital and market share that can reshape the global economy. This is exactly the kind of environment that can attract FDI, and can bring about good fortunes for the country and its people. Yet somehow we haven’t made quite made it yet. While shiny malls, large multiplexes, and urban parks light up the cities, there are several fundamental issues still to be addressed in the Country. Poverty is still rife, access to fundamental rights such as education, health still are limited to many. No one wants to be held responsible for the state of things, yet they have found a multitude of reasons to shift the blame to. Largely, the rhetoric seems to be one of the two things. It is Either that we have floundered the ways of Ancient India or that the the leaders of Post Independence India are responsible for not helping India reach her full potential.

There seem to be  many who want to hold on to an idea of India from the past. The Golden years they say, and remind us of our history, culture and civilization via social medial platforms at every single opportunity. India has been blessed with stellar mathematicians and scientists whose work in Mathematics, Astronomy, and Medicine has laid the foundational ground work for many to follow. There is no denying this.  But i do find it a bit farfetched when claims are made by prominent politicians that the Vedas and religious books hold explanation for every modern day scientific phenomenon. I always look to take these with a pinch of salt and ignore many of the outlandish claims. But it is discerning to note that many others seem to blindly believe these. The sheer number of fraudulent messages that are being generated by social media campaigns is mind numbing. Several “yogis and godmen” have created a thriving business model that convinces the masses of the pseudo sciences. I also have no intention of making this post a lengthy historical lesson or a discourse about Ancient India, all i want to do is to understand how history and experiences have shaped the Idea of India has evolved over time. In order to do so i had to rely on the work of a historian. I understand the nuances of being a historian, history like news needs to be reported as it happened. Any bias or modification in reporting would make it fiction, not fact. I chose Ramachandra Guha’s book “India after Gandhi” to help understand contemporary history and to see if there was any truth to the complaints about the Post Independence India leaders.

The Great Indian Mystery

When the Indian independence movement was reaching a climatic stage several prominent British personalities such as Churchill, Kipling doubted the Indian’s ability to govern and  feared that the country would erupt in Chaos. The East India company had thrived under the Divide and Conquer Policy and the British could not comprehend as how a government could unite the independent princely states that were divided along multiple axes such as language, caste, religion, etc.

Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like the Punjab. – Sir John Strachey.

The Brexit of 1947: ‘Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like the Punjab’ (scroll.in)

Jawaharlal Nehru became the first prime minister of Independent India and his government included a woman, and members from different parties. The governments first task was to get the 500 odd princely states united under a single Flag. Sardar Vallabhai Patel, along with K.M. Panikkar and V.P Menon coaxed and drafted policies to get the princely states to accede to the union of India. The constitution drafting committee was headed by  B.R Ambedkar and represented a diverse group of Individuals who worked on the constitution of India. Sukumar Sen, the election commissioner of India was responsible for conducting the elections across the country and is seen as the unsung hero of the Indian Democratic process. I couldn’t help wonder the sheer will and effort these leaders had to put in these fundamental guardrails to help govern a unified country for the past 73 years. In spite of early warnings and worries, the Indian democracy continues to be a model process for the rest of the world. 

The Great Divide

As Mohammed Jinnah pushed for a separate state for Muslims, he polarized the community and instigated riots in several parts of the country. Violence spilled over onto the streets of Punjab and Calcutta. Gandhi and Nehru’s voices of reason and pleas to unite the country fell on deaf years. The Britishers before leaving decided a two country solution was and decided to split Bengal, and Punjab between India and Pakistan. While the Hindus of Bengal took the West and the Muslims took the east (now Bangladesh), it was not straightforward in Punjab as the state had a strong Hindu, Muslim and Sikh population. As violence continued to increase the central government decided to agree to the Two State solution. The partition caused massive displacement and claimed millions of lives as violence escalated. M.S. Gowalkar and the R.S.S movement primarily hold Nehru, Gandhi and Patel responsible for the injustice to the Hindus of Punjab and Bengal. It is also interesting to observe that while M.S Gowalkar and the Sangh did not support the Quit India Movement founded by the Indian National Congress they were up in arms at the idea of partitioning India. Inspite of the bloodshed the division brought about to the country it is worthwhile to note that Gandhi and Nehru did more to quell the violence in the country than any other leader. The British ordered the Company army to stand down and protect the European citizens rather than quell the riots in the country. The partition forced Gandhi and Nehru to think about the safety of Muslims who chose to stay back in India and this thought did influence his politics and policies. This issue becomes a bone of contention between the Sangh and Nehru. The Sangh hated Nehru for giving in to the demands of Jinnah, and Nehru developed a distrust of the Sangh for instigating violence against Muslims in India.

India is divided she will be lost forever. Therefore . . . if India is to remain undivided, Hindus and Moslems must live together in brotherly love, not in hostile camps organized either for defensive action or retaliation. . . .

The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology, edited by Louis Fischer, 1962

India for Hindus was the rallying cry for the RSS. Nehru and Gandhi did not want India to be a religious state, like Pakistan. They understood that the strength of the country was in its diversity and did everything to ensure that the Muslim citizens of India were protected equally. Nehru did not want his ministers to partake in religious ceremonies or create an illusion of being pro Hindu. Nehru also had an modern outlook on life and wanted to push India to be Secular. Along with Ambedkar, het set about an agenda to impose religious reforms in the constitution of India. Nehru excluded the Muslims from the scope of his reforms and pushed forth reforms to serve rights for women (Choice of marriage and divorce), enforced monogamy for Hindus, made untouchability illegal and eliminated restrictions on caste based marriages etc. Though the reforms seem to be forward thinking, the right wing parties that their beliefs and rights were being infringed upon. The divide along Religion and Caste was too big a chasm to bridge in India for Nehru.

Inspite of the laws and reforms some of these practices seem to have persisted well into the 20th century. The Fact that India has enjoyed considerable democratic stability on account of its diverse and secular background does go on to prove Nehru right in this regard. Pakistan being a religious state has had to contend with a bumpy democratic process and has seen its share of authoritarian leaders.

As the various princely states started to accede to the union of India, Kashmir and Hyderabad held out and did not readily accede. Both states had a significant Muslim population and that fed into the Sangh theory that the Muslims could not be trusted. Both states eventually sided with the Indian republic. If the religious reforms were a thorn in Nehru’s flesh, then the Kashmir issue was a smoking gun. Kashmir is unique in the fact that the state was ruled over by a Hindu King, had a large Muslim population and bordered China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Jinnah wanted Kashmir to accede to Pakistan. Maharaja Hari Singh had to turn to Nehru for help when tribesmen attacked the state and committed atrocities against the general population. Nehru agreed to send the military on condition that the Maharaja accept the Indian government. Inspite of the king agreeing to do so Nehru did not force the matter and agreed when Sheik Abdullah pushed for a plebiscite to determine if Kashmir was to be part of India. The people of Kashmir voted to remain with India. Kashmir had secured considerable autonomy in governance as part of the demands while acceding to India. Sheik Abdullah (Omar Abdullah’s grand father) who took over from the raja as the interim PM of Kashmir had imposed land reforms that favored the Muslims over Hindus. This obviously did not sit well with the Hindu population in Jammu. S.P Mookerjee (founder of modern day B.J.P) and M.S Gowalkar thought Nehru was being weak and wanted Kashmir to Integrate completely with India. The status quo held until in 2019, HM Amit Shah passed the resolution in the cabinet that removed the protected status for the state of Kashmir and integrated the state completely under the Indian union. The fact that it took more than 70 years and a majority BJP central government to impose the change, highlights the delicate state of things in Kashmir. The Kashmir issue has continued to plague the Indian and Pakistan governments, wars have been fought on account of Kashmir and the issue remains to date a major source of disagreement, and distrust between the two countries. Of all issues plaguing the country, nothing can come close to splitting the country along the seam like religion.

It is to be noted that the indecisive nature of Maharaja Hari Singh, the stubbornness of Sheik and the pride of the governments all have lead to the unfortunate state of affairs in Kashmir.

P.S: I would like to tag a group of essays that sort of tie together in an elaborate manner to create a sense of how this notion of India has been instilled in out minds.